Below is the full text of the speech delivered by Shadow Chancellor Anneliese Dodds as she set out her plan for a “bright future for our high streets” today.
It’s such a pleasure to be in Birmingham today. It’s a city that’s very close to my heart. For four years I worked at Aston University. I had the privilege of enjoying the civic splendour of the city centre. The hustle and bustle of the old and then the new Bullrings. And, of course, the vibrancy, character and grit of the people of Britain’s great second city.
But that memory is bittersweet today. Liam and I have seen this morning what’s happening to Birmingham’s city centre. The loss of the flagship John Lewis store at Grand Central is heart breaking. I think of all those who will have lost their jobs as a result. But I also think of the whole community of Birmingham who have lost a cornerstone of the flagship Grand Central development. One that I saw myself rising out of the palisades and surrounding area.
Sadly, we know developments here are not isolated or one-off. In the ten years before the pandemic hit the West Midlands lost over a thousand shops. And during the same time period, across the UK as a whole we lost over 7,000 shops from our high streets. And the pandemic has hit Birmingham hard, with footfall in the city centre taking longer to recover here than anywhere other than London and Glasgow. For our country’s second city, this loss of custom and shops is devastating.
For some of our smaller towns, it’s existential. Where a high street has fewer than a hundred shops, the loss of just a handful can be a tipping point from which a small town can’t recover. The threat here is not just to ‘retail units’. It’s to communities, and the places that bring those communities together. After a year like the one we’ve just had, that sense of community is more important than ever. Not only have the Conservatives overseen the continued decline of our high streets, this summer they’re set to make it even worse.
From August, they’re going to rip up the rules that give local people a say in what happens to their high streets. They’ll allow our shops, restaurants and cafes to be sold off to the highest bidder, converted into flats that only have to meet the bare minimum of standards. Developers won’t be required to make any contribution to the local community: nothing on outside space, nothing on affordable housing. This is the act of a government that is washing its hands of our high streets when it should be acting to save them.
On 6th May, people here in Birmingham and in every part of the country can send a message loud and clear. That they’ve had enough of this government wringing its hands and then failing to act. They can vote for change. For hope. For a Labour Party that will put communities first, and promises a bright future for our high streets. In the West Midlands, they can vote for Liam Byrne, a candidate for mayor with a long-term plan who will always, always speak up for the people of the West Midlands. Labour would support Britain’s proud high streets.
As a start, we’d scrap those Conservative plans to sell them off. And we’d go further. We’d give local councils the power to step in and breathe new life into our high streets, bringing vacant properties back into use. Helping to end the blight of empty shops. We’d establish a high streets fightback fund for those businesses who have been especially hard hit in this last year to get back on their feet. Targeted support for those who need it most. And like Labour-run Wales, nationally we would work to ensure help gets to those businesses and families who really need it. Making sure that business rates relief was focused on struggling businesses, not the very biggest supermarkets. And that stamp duty relief didn’t go to those purchasing second homes.
We know that the recovery of our high streets from the pandemic also relies on people having the confidence, and the money, to go back out once restrictions have lifted. But the government is taking a hammer to family finances that risks dampening the recovery and making the plight of our high streets even worse. They’re giving our key workers a real-terms pay cut. A pay cut for our teaching assistants, our police officers, members of our armed forces – and, yes, our NHS Covid heroes. At the end of the month, they’re forcing through a massive council tax hike. And let’s be absolutely clear: that’s the decision of the Westminster Conservatives, not of local Labour councillors.
In six months’ time they’re cutting £20 a week from social security, just as unemployment is set to peak. All of that takes money out of people’s pockets that they can’t then spend on our local high streets. Instead, Labour would protect family finances and consumer confidence. In the long run, we need a vision for the future of our high streets. That doesn’t mean harking back to an era that we know has long since passed. People are buying more and more online. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, quite the opposite. But deciding where to spend your money should be a genuine choice, between businesses competing on a level playing field. It shouldn’t be because an online firm, paying little to no tax, can completely undercut a bricks and mortar business doing the right thing and dutifully paying its rates.
That’s not free and it’s not fair. It means our high street businesses are competing with one hand tied behind their backs, and it needs to be addressed urgently. We can’t continue with a situation where five US tech firms account for £1.3bn in lost corporation tax every year, while high street shops pay business rates under a system that hasn’t been reformed for years. Tomorrow, the government should set out what it plans to do about this. On so-called ‘Tax Day’ the Conservatives must level the playing field between high street businesses and giant online firms. If we don’t act now, then the loss of shops and high street businesses that I’ve seen here in Birmingham today will only accelerate.
We need action today to secure that bright future for our high street. To help businesses hit hard by the pandemic get back on their feet. To ensure hardworking families have money in their pockets to go and spend in their town and city centres as restrictions lift. To stop the sell-off of our high streets and empower local communities to bring empty shops back to life. And to lay the foundations now for a fair tax system that allows the high streets of the future to flourish. That’s what a Labour government would do. It’s why I urge everyone on 6th May to cast their vote for Labour. To secure our economy, protect our NHS and rebuild our country. Thank you.